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Executive engagement in times of crisis

Sharon Gillenwater

gabriel-bnohZ9c4lqg-unsplashRunning an enterprise is challenging under the best of circumstances. Over much of the past decade, corporate leaders have enjoyed an extended period of favorable economic conditions, resulting in record profits and performance.

COVID-19 brought that to an abrupt halt earlier this month. We all know the story, so we won’t rehash it here. Our job is to tell you where organizations are headed. We do this by closely following the corporate executives charged with leading enterprises through both prosperous and perilous times, constantly monitoring their strategic pivots and opportunities.

We recognize that marketers and sales leaders focused on executive engagement are operating in uncharted waters. Pre-pandemic programs and campaigns now seem irrelevant at best, and tone deaf at worst. Yet pivoting too hard to COVID-19 messaging is also risky, if it is not done thoughtfully. In mid-March, Jason Chan, VP of Information Security at Netflix, posted on LinkedIn, “Folks — enough with the COVID-19 based sales pitches” adding, “if your product's worth buying, I'll buy it on its merits, not fear-based marketing.” 

What is the right approach to executive engagement during the COVID-19 crisis?

We have been focused on answering this question since early March. We have reviewed hundreds of pieces of content, including recent corporate earnings calls and press releases, executive interviews and surveys of corporate leaders, and other assorted business punditry. As is always the case, we put the most weight on what the executives themselves are saying, pulling out the most instructive quotes, which we have highlighted throughout this article. 

Before we dig into recommendations for how to engage executives in this time of crisis, we first want to share what we are seeing in terms of executive mindset and the context in which they are making decisions.

Here is what we found:

1. Pretty much everything a CEO wants to know before making a business decision is currently unknown. 

How long will this crisis last? How long will city- and state-wide lockdowns be in place? How long and how badly will this crisis impact my workforce, my supply chain, my financial results, my customers, my markets and the global economy? 

Frank Witter“Nobody knows at this point the severity and duration,” said Volkswagen CFO Frank Witter on March 17th. “Nobody can reliably quantify the knock-on effects. This makes it near to impossible to provide reliable forecasts today.”

For many of these leaders, this is the most challenging business environment they have ever experienced in their careers. “A range of possibilities so wide leaves CEOs without fixed parameters for decision-making,” reported Crain’s Chicago Business.  “Waiting for complete information could leave too little time to avoid serious damage. Moving too soon could put a company on the wrong side of events.”

On March 19th, Lennar Corp. Executive Chairman Stuart Miller didn’t sugarcoat the situation for analysts on the company’s Q1 2020 Stuart Miller captionearnings call: “Businesses across the country like ours are searching for playbooks and institutional memory to help guide the way forward,” he said. “Those simply do not exist. There are no financial models to populate and no views around dark corners to illuminate. There is only management, hands-on management, working day by day and making adjustments, looking for signals and making decisions in an imperfect environment that will have to be considered and reconsidered as the landscape evolves… our company experienced the grief of losing one of our Seattle associates to coronavirus on March 2nd, just after our quarter ended. A successful quarter turned quickly to shock and despair, as this was only the third or fourth casualty of COVID-19 in the country. This very sad call to action focused our management’s attention on the new day unfolding.”

“Probably only when we look in the rearview mirror will we truly understand if the steps we are taking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 were appropriate or excessive,” said L Brands Founder and Chairman Emeritus Les Wexner on March 18th, when he was announcing a wind down of the company’s distribution centers. “For the good of our associates and communities, I would rather risk being viewed as too cautious.”

2. Executive priorities and perspectives are changing at an astonishingly rapid pace. 

 We’ve heard executives say one thing in early March only to pivot just weeks later. Elon Musk went from dismissing the coronavirus panic as “dumb” (March 6th) to committing to produce 1,000 ventilators (March 21st). While Musk is perhaps the most widely publicized example, we’ve seen plenty of others. As Harvard Business Review reported on March 20th, “For weeks, our corporate clients and contacts waved off concerns about a potential economic impact from the COVID-19 outbreak. Then something changed around March 9. First, our contacts told us they were restricting visitors to their offices and encouraging remote work. Now, only a few days later, we are hearing that many of them are considering layoffs to ensure they make it through the crisis — and a recent survey found that a vast majority of corporate leaders are considering some sort of financial action as a result of the pandemic.”

Sundar caption 3Not surprisingly, tech companies that have the capabilities to operate virtually and  monitor and respond to real-time developments have an advantage over companies in less tech-centric industries. Back in early March (which seems like a lifetime ago as far as this crisis is concerned), Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said the company’s security and “resilience” teams were running a 24-hour command center to help executives monitor updates in real-time and coordinate across the company. The company was also communicating directly with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), and had set up a new internal channel called “Go/Coronavirus” dedicated to real-time updates for employees.

3. Because of how quickly things are changing, many CEOs seem to be avoiding making public statements — until they have to.

Throughout March, executives have seen the drawbacks of publicly discounting the severity and impact of the pandemic. No leader wants to have to walk back earlier comments, or look like they did not see this coming. As a result, executives seem to avoid speaking publicly until they have to. Public companies are required to do earnings calls and answer to the investment community every quarter. For many CEOs, these transcripts contain their first public comments on how the crisis is impacting their business, and how they are responding. There are a couple of exceptions; some CEO remarks contained in memos to employees have leaked and provide insight into how they are leading through this crisis. And, some leaders are speaking about what their companies are doing to help their communities — or the country. CEOs from companies such as Autodesk, Box, Cisco and Slack are announcing free versions of their services and tools to help organizations operate virtually. "We've done hundreds of upgrades and consultations already and have an incredibly helpful, speedy and energized team standing by. We're grateful to be able to help where we can," Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield tweeted.

Bill Ford captionOn March 24th, Ford Motor Co. announced plans to build respirators, ventilators and face shields in partnership with manufacturing company 3M and GE Healthcare to aid medical workers as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to overwhelm their supply. "We were the arsenal of democracy during two world wars,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford said, announcing the initiatives. “We built iron lungs for polio patients. Whenever we're called on, we're there."

4. Employees and customers are top priorities.

As the virus hit the U.S., many companies moved quickly to ensure the well-being of their employees. Organizations both large and small asked employees to work from home, even ahead of official orders from local authorities. Employers are scrambling to provide home-bound workers with the technology and equipment they need, while increasing the capacity of virtual private networks, used to encrypt data from workers’ homes to company servers. Some companies are offering extra financial assistance for their employees; for example, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo paying out special compensation to front-line employees, as well as employees whose salaries fall under certain thresholds.

On the customer front, B2C enterprises are scrambling to meet the needs of hunkered-down citizens. Domino’s, DoorDash, 7-Eleven, Uber Eats and Chipotle have expanded delivery services and have created a new service category called “contactless” delivery. Wireless carriers like Verizon are waiving activation and upgrade fees and expediting shipping.

B2B CEOs say they are seeing unanticipated customer “deal slippage” as decision makers are distracted by the shift to work-from-home and delaying purchasing decisions. B2B CEOs are prioritizing customer conversations to gain insight into where their businesses Shantanu captionare headed.  “I've had a ton of conversations [with] CEOs across all industries, and I think there are two themes that are absolutely consistent,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said on March 12th. “The first theme is everybody is, first and foremost, making sure that they take care of the well-being of their employees. They're all dealing with travel restrictions. They're all dealing with the outbreak. The second thing that they all tell me is that, hey, this, if anything, will accentuate the need to engage digitally, not just internal to the corporation, to keep the corporation going but externally in order to engage with customers…if you can't engage with your customers digitally, you're dead in the water.”

So what does this mean for those focused on executive engagement?

Sales and marketing teams should approach executive engagement the same way they always have: by making sure they have done their homework to understand executive priorities, and then crafting a strategy, communications and touchpoints that speak to those priorities. They should continue to look for “hooks” (e.g., something an executive said on an earnings call) to use as conversation starters, as well as uncover executive-to-executive connections (e.g., your CMO shares an alma mater, past employer or a hobby with one of the executives you are targeting) that can help open doors. If you’re a seasoned executive engagement pro, you know what to do. If you’re new to the game, here are some resources that will help you get up to speed on the basics. 

What’s changed is that keeping up to date with rapidly shifting executive priorities just got a lot harder. Executives are in crisis mode, and everyone is distracted and putting 100% of their focus on their own employees and customers, which means your deal might be on the back burner for a while longer. But that won’t — and can’t — last forever. Business leaders are focused on long-term strategies and outcomes, so it is inevitable that they will return to more of a long-term, strategic mindset. When that happens, you want to be up to speed and ready to help them move forward. 

With that in mind, here are a few tips for keeping up with executive priorities across all of your most important accounts:

1. Follow the executive leaders of all of your key accounts on Twitter and LinkedIn. If they are prolific on these platforms, you can get insight into their influencers and their values and priorities by following their posts. 

2. Set up Google alerts on the executives and accounts you care about so you can be notified right away about new interviews, statements or developments that you can use as “hooks” to start a conversation. 

3. This next tip is the most important one for those of you who work with large, publicly traded companies. Read their earnings call transcripts from start to finish, including the analyst Q&A, where some of the most valuable insight is often found. This is one of the few places where you can get deep insight on your accounts’ top priorities, initiatives and challenges, directly from the executives who are leading them. Make a calendar of scheduled earnings calls for all of your most important accounts and jump on those transcripts as they are released (You can get these by setting up a free account on seekingalpha.com). At Boardroom Insiders, our own sales team has resurrected many conversations gone silent and deals gone dormant just by leveraging one nugget from an earnings call and creating a thoughtfully crafted email or voicemail around it. 

4. Finally, practice patience, empathy, and optimism. In recent days we’ve heard the best leaders say, “We’ll get through this.” Now’s the time to roll up your sleeves and offer to help your customers get through this — even if it means bending your normal rules of engagement or doing something for free. Generally, executives are optimistic problem solvers, and they need partners who demonstrate those same qualities in the best and the worst of times. Consider Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International. As he manages the company through the worst crisis in its history, Sorenson is also battling pancreatic cancer. “I can tell you that I’ve never had a more difficult moment than this one,” he said in a March 19th video message to employees. He acknowledged his health, saying, “I feel good and my team and I are 100% focused on overcoming the common crisis we face.” He said that Marriott employees will be there to welcome back guests when the crisis is over, adding that “together we can and will overcome this, and we’ll thrive once again.”

P.S. We wouldn’t be good marketers if we didn’t point out that Boardroom Insiders does a lot of the above so you don’t have to, and we are a secret weapon for some of the most successful executive engagement pros in the world. In the best of times, we want to help. In the worst of times, we want to do more. So call on us. It’s what we’re here for.

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Sharon Gillenwater
Written by Sharon Gillenwater
Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.
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